Charles Duhigg, author of the best-selling “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” (Random House, 2012), is not the first person to draw our awareness to the mindless behaviors that can often make or break the quality of our lives. Somewhere between 384 BC and 322 BC, the philosopher Aristotle wrote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Since that time, a lot of science has developed to support exactly why this is true, along with some tips on how to change our habits.
One of my favorites includes a little device called the “MotiveAider” (www.MotiveAider.com), a vibrator that you clip to your belt. When your new toy arrives in the mail (in a plain wrapper, for sure), you simply bond with it by holding it and mentally associating a specific behavior change with the device. You then program it to vibrate every so often and clip it on your belt. The silent vibration throughout the day reminds you of your desired change of habit.
You see, the reason we fail in our attempts to change our behavior is that we lose focus. The private vibrator keeps your focus on the change you want so that it doesn’t slip mindlessly into the abyss of your subconscious, where your unkept New Year’s resolutions reside, adding to the unnamed, tortured guilt that floats free in our brains and makes us feel like pond scum for no apparent reason. (I really hate when that happens.)
There is a cheaper, more painful way to break a habit that some psychologists recommend: a rubber band around your wrist that you snap painfully every time you feel the urge to engage in your bad behavior. The goal is to “break your state” and focus your awareness on the change you want to make. Your attention would turn to the physical pain and away from the urge.
Frankly, that would never work for me. The pain would just aggravate me and make me want to eat more chocolate-chip cookies as a reward for my suffering. There must be a lot of masochists out there, because this is a popular, proven method that seems to work well for a lot of people.
Beyond that, there is a website called BeatTheMonster.com that is devoted to all manner of tools and techniques to help us annihilate those destructive mindworms that aren’t serving us well. I’m not sure that nurturing a violent, negative attitude toward my habits is what I would go for. I already feel bad enough, thank you.
I prefer a kinder, gentler approach. I choose to treat my bad behavior like a naughty child who I can bribe with rewards. One thing the science has taught us is that we need to not just change a behavior, but also to substitute it with something else. For example, when I don’t eat the cookie, I could buy a new dress instead. But then I would have a shopping problem. OK, when I want to buy a new dress, I will run around the block instead. And surely I need an outfit for that, so I’ll buy really cool running shoes, which actually costs more than the dress.
I’m beginning to see a cycle here – substituting one habit for another still makes me a slave to habit. I’m just saying, choose your habits carefully because when you go messing with your software, it’s a slippery slope.
Sharon Lennox-Infante, a Los Altos resident, is contributing editor for Book Buzz.